There is nothing like getting ready to go out. I have loved it ever since I was a teenager. From the excited first time I went to a school disco, to the cinema with my friends; to just cycling round the block, or the nervous exhilaration of a house party, I have always been one to luxuriate in the process. Long, long baths ( I can let myself stay in for two hours if I don’t notice the clock); clothes washed and neutrally nice-smelling in advance; bath and hair products coincided with deliberation (how many a scented outfit is ruined by someone’s wrongly chosen, overly strongly fragranced shampoo / conditioner or an overly resonous synthetic fabric conditioner?)
No, you have to think about it all, get it all right in order, then, to have that delectable sensation of going out into the night smelling good, when you know full well in your soul that all the air surrounding you smells delicious, that you are a talking, walking, scent sculpture.
I love this feeling. I always have.
I love the instinctiveness of it. And also the precariousness………… (how awful when you get it wrong and rue the scent the whole night long, as if you were trapped in the wrong body….): mistakes that can be a strange kind of agony and purgatory for the smell sensitive.
To know what you will be wearing in advance ? Or to choose intuitively from your collection when you are out the bath, wrapped in towels and bath robe, standing in your bedroom: olfactory art waiting to happen – a beautifully clean and ready blank canvas?
Myself, I will have usually chosen in advance – hence my choice of soaps and bath oils, which once selected will usually brook no opposition (you can’t use something vanilla in the bath if you are going to be wearing Nº19 straight afterwards), and this Saturday evening for this indulgent, ridiculous sybarite it was most definitely going to be cardamom essential oil, with some virgin coconut oil also for skin suppleness, because I was exhausted from the week’s teaching and there is nothing else quite like it when you need to be reinvigorated. Unlike rosemary, which gives me physical cardio-jolts when I am in the water (and sometimes I want that), or ylang ylang, which makes me go all lopey and excited but can sometimes make me come out in hives, or black pepper (great for skin, but it can leave you a bit red-faced), cardamom, an essential oil that is less easy to find than your usual lavenders and lemons but worth looking out for if you like the smell of the spice, is an absolute tonic. It smells beautiful, elevates your nerves, but doesn’t overly scent the skin; just a slight, green, tropical tang.
Right. Out the bath, finally.
Now, there was never going to be any doubt that tonight’s main event was going to be a recent recycle shop rediscovery, La Rose De Rosine, which I bought for a song in a Yokohama cheap second-hand emporium (unopened: what was it doing there?) and snapped up in a jiffy as I love the box. Les Parfums De Rosine are a lovely perfume house, I think, with their tiny, rose-galore boutique at the Palais Royal, but for some reason I haven’t talked about them much here on The Black Narcissus (I’d like to know what you think of them, actually). In some ways, the sheer number of perfumes, all rose-themed, that exist in the line now have induced some kind of apathy in me, and I suspect in a lot of other people, as well. There are only so many Rosines you can keep up with, and yet almost every one I have smelled has been good, from the intriguingly gruff but elegant Rose D’Homme, to the lemony, oceanic breeze of Rose d’Eté through to the naughty, more animalic, eyelashed snogs of Les Secrets De Rose.
In some ways, though, the original scent from those fancy Parisian rose people is still the best. The company’s first perfume from 1991, La Rose De Rosine, was always the anomaly in the line-up, which on the whole has tended to smell quite sheer and pretty. La Rose is anything but: this is a party gatecrasher of a scent; warm, extravagant, and very deliberately fun. If it were a white flower it would be Loulou; a violet, Aimez Moi. Though ostensibly a rose perfume (with a gorgeous, initial dollop of the finest Bulgarian rose absolute) this has the heft and the texture of the aforementioned scents and their party-loving tendencies. Thick, sweet, decidedly balsamic, the engorged, fat cheeks of the rose are encircled with a velveteen collarette of the most velvety violets and a lick of something animalic and powdery, like some mad old bat lunging for you at the opera. The best is to come, though: a decidedly pleasing late-skin stage of benzoin, tonka bean and Peru balsam that make the scent, despite its juggles with roses, essentially an oriental, and an oriental that to my surprise I love myself in and can’t get enough of. I’ve got through a quarter of the bottle (eau de parfum – quite strong) in a week.
For some reason this evening, though, I have definitely decided to have a co-star in the body’s perfumed layout (the layering dilemma: f*** it, after a week of trying to be nice and conservative smelling at work in my suit, I need to let rip tonight and just one perfume, even in excess just won’t do I’m afraid), and so I have to decide, crucially, now, the order in which to apply these mothers.
Which to be sprayed on my t-shirt (we are to be going to a club, hilarious considering the fact that I can’t even walk properly, never mind dance, but I did in the end manage to just jiggle on a stool and clap along like the token handicapped person), and I know for sure that I want to have one of the two on skin; the other on my clothes.
In the end this one turned out to be Bakhoor Al Arais by Swiss Arabian; a lovely, sweet, almondy, floral oudh thing that I bought very cheaply in Dubai and which I instantly felt a connection with for some reason (possibly because, with its musky intimations of floral saffron, it reminded me of a Montale scent I bought for myself a few summers ago, Velvet Flowers). It wasn’t spectacular, but it just felt delicious; cheap in a good way; right. I love the Arab perfume culture, how the second I arrived at Dubai airport the hunks at the security checks emanated sweat and delicious (if extraordinarily intense) oudhs, how every man, woman and even child seemed to be spraying themselves with perfume, how most of the traditionally Arabian perfumes couldn’t be further from the standard sports deodorant smells you get in the west if they tried. Ah, the lushness, the richness, the perfume. (The PERFUME!!! They get it… )
So I am now dressed (but let’s not get into that – there is a very meagre selection available for me in the ‘wardrobe’, a word that for me, in any case, applies to my perfumes), as Duncan, ever enviably, slips into an immaculate, dark blue, floral shirt he has just bought – but then I was never really a clothes person, so that will have to be that). But at least they smell good, and I like simplicity in my garb anyway, and for god’s sake, if I dressed as flamboyantly as I smell, surely I would just be attacked.
I stand, aureoled and excited on the landing upstairs, with rich, suffocating puffs of scent; roses, balsams, almonds, my hair (washed with Shiseido’s Camellia oil shampoo and conditioner, for your information), quite satisfied and contented with my selections.
But there is one more thing.
It was funny, in that airport. There were so many oudh-based scents from all the western perfume houses, all these ‘special edition’, ‘rich club’, ‘noir’, ‘velvet’ exclusive scents from everyone from YSL to Dolce & Gabbana to even Boss and Dunhill that I simply couldn’t bear to smell any more, especially when there were so many ‘native’ oudhs (at about a sixth of the price) on offer as well, and the whole thing was starting to feel a bit like lugging coals to Newcastle. I had been planning to do a ‘Dubai exclusive’ post, replete with photos, for this blog for all the oudh lovers out there, but in the end I was just so exhausted (I arrived at almost 1am) that trudging along with my notebook, half-heartedly sketching portraits of perfumes that all basically smelled the same held almost no appeal (sorry).
Instead, I found myself far more fascinated by the shop that was selling soaps, shampoos, deodorants and hair creams, all of which struck me as somehow far more exclusive and exotic. And, having been to Indonesia last year and spent a lot of time in trains, as well as walking through towns and cities and mosques, I am fascinated by the white, soapy corridors of what perfumes are considered acceptable/desirable for men in non-western societies. While there is of course plenty of mindless macho on offer in these shops, as there is anywhere else, it seems to me that there is also far more room to manoeuvre olfactively in Muslim cultures; men are supposed to smell of flowers when they enter the gates of heaven; cleanliness is most definitely a virtue. And the hair creams you can buy, like the one I drenched my head in on Saturday night, Parachute, just take me back to the spacious architecture of these pristine buildings and the smell of their outside wash rooms; inalienably foreign, and new to me, yet right.
Soapier, even, than soap, so potently fresh; gleaming, like just-polished marbled corridors. Not like detergents, or laundry musks, but white-robed extraits de parfum of savon a l’Arabe: a scent that reminds me completely of my hotel room in Jakarta, of the cool stone floors, the heat outside, the call to morning prayer; a simple, but heartfully pleasing smell that graces the head most elegantly, beautifully.
While the veils of almond, rose muskiness rose up from my clothes with the Bakhoor Al Arais, and the sensual benzoin skin kisses from La Rose De Rosine floated about just so, every time I turned my head on Saturday night on the streets of Japan’s second biggest city, it was all delightfully offset by this trip through foreign lands and other cultures for which, at least on the scent level, I feel I have the most profound affinity. Mmmmm……
And with that, this perfume maniac went off into the cold, rainy night. Happy to be with his friends and to be alive; to be surrounded by the sights and sounds of the city, of people enjoying themselves, to talk and enjoy the pounding music; but also happily alone internally, to be wrapped up in thought; deliciously snug in scent.